I was in a group of women recently when one mentioned that some of them played canasta. I hadn’t heard of canasta since I was a girl in Lincoln, Nebraska, and used to play it with my three great-aunts in their basement to escape the heat on hot summer afternoons.
They invited me to join their group for a game sometime. I haven’t played in years, don’t remember the rules and justifiably invite the mocking of loved ones whenever I attempt to shuffle a deck.
Naturally, I said, “Sure!”
My new card-shark friends go by the names of Snake, Wild Bill, Doc and Deadwood. Not really. They actually go by Susan, Marleen, Bette and Louella. But don’t let the names fool you — they’re all aces.
We met up, and they graciously went over the rules and played a few practice hands. Louella, who has a lovely Southern drawl and charm to match, sweetly asked if any of it was coming back to me.
“The part about my aunts warning me to stay away from the sump pump in the basement is coming back to me,” I said, “but other than that, not a thing.”
Susan, who retaught others the game and is my partner across the table, looked pale. And that was before we were 3,700 points behind.
When our score dropped into the negative double-digits, Louella took the heat off by saying the good thing about canasta is that it is more luck than skill, which means you can talk while you play.
If there’s anything women do better than trump one another at cards, it is trump one another with stories.
I started the round by asking Louella where she learned to play canasta.
She said Chattanooga, Tennessee. Then she added, “With the grandmother of my friend, Gatewood Anthony Folger.” Everybody looked at her. With a perfect deadpan expression, she continued, “Why yes, and Gatewood Anthony Folger met and married a Greek man named Stavros Papazoglou, which made her Gatewood Anthony Papazoglou.”
Louella played a good hand with that story, which reminded Bette, who learned to play canasta as a girl in Chicago with a neighbor and her grandma, that she had a college friend named Paula Penny Pecker. She later married a man with the last name of Chicken, which then made her Penny Chicken.
Marleen, who had cards everywhere on the table making melds or mold (I wasn’t sure which), upped the ante by saying that her best friend Ruth knew a gal named Olive Pickle.
It was back to Bette, who wasn’t about to fold. She met Marleen’s story about Olive Pickle and raised the stakes by mentioning that her last name is Fortino (pronounced four-teen-o). She said when she and her husband make dinner reservations “for Fortino,” they often arrive to find a table set for 14.
The story play passed to me. It was too rich for my blood, but I played the best I had: “My best friend from childhood went to a doctor named Dr. Savage and a dentist named Dr. Butcher.”
We were back to Louella. Without so much as cracking a smile, she said that she and her husband knew a man in Mississippi named Hap. It was short for Happy.
Long pause. Waiting, waiting.
His last name was Easter.